China’s daring mission to grab Moon rocks is under way

If successful, Chang’e-5 will be the first Chinese craft to bring back lunar material to Earth.

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A rocket takes off amid clouds of vapour.

A Long March-5 rocket carrying Chang’e-5 lifts off.Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP/Shutterstock

A Chinese spacecraft is on its way to the Moon after launching off the coast of Hainan Island in southern China at 4.30 a.m. local time on 24 November.

Chang’e-5’s mission is to retrieve rocks from the Moon and return them to Earth. If successful, the craft will be the first to collect lunar material in 44 years — and the mission will be a first for China, ushering in the next phase of its increasingly complex lunar exploration programme. Several Chang’e spacecraft, which are named after a Chinese Moon goddess, have reached and touched down on the Moon; one landed on its far side.

Chang’e-5 blasted off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center aboard the Chinese Long March-5 rocket. Its 800,000-kilometre round trip to the Moon will take about three weeks.

“I just left the coast after seeing the rocket take off. I was so excited, and tears filled my eyes,” says Xiao Long, a planetary geologist at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan. “This will greatly encourage people, especially the younger generation, to study and explore the worlds beyond our Earth.”

Clive Neal, a geoscientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, says that if it is successful, the mission will mark the beginning of a new era of robotic sample returns from the Moon, which will undoubtedly change scientists’ understanding of the planetary body. “Now we wait for the samples to be collected and returned.”

The mission, led by the China National Space Administration, is receiving communications support from the European Space Agency to track the spacecraft’s journey through deep space, and its return to Earth in mid-December.

Change’e-5 weighs some 8,200 kilograms and contains a lander, ascender, orbiter and returner. The craft is expected to arrive at the Moon within days. Once it is in lunar orbit, the lander and ascender will descend to the Moon’s surface. A couple of hundred metres above ground, the probe will hover and use its camera to survey the surface for any hazards such as large boulders, and to identify a safe place for the lander and ascender to touch down.

A gold-coloured landing craft with four legs and solar panels.

A model of the Chang’e-5 probe that is now on its way to the Moon.Credit: Liang Xu/Xinhua/Alamy

The proposed landing site is a 55,000-square-kilometre area in the northwestern region of the expansive lava plains known as Oceanus Procellarum, on the Moon’s near side. The precise location won’t be determined until after Chang’e-5 reaches lunar orbit, but it is likely to be in the eastern area that contains some of the youngest volcanic material, says James Head, a planetary geoscientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

This area is of particular interest to scientists because it could confirm whether the Moon was still volcanically active some one billion to two billion years ago. The age of the rocks is not yet known, but remote observations of the lunar surface suggest that they are roughly two billion years younger than the lava samples collected by the US and Soviet lunar missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

The landing region is “one of the most interesting scientific sites to be explored on the Moon, and the samples, when returned and analysed, will give us a treasure trove of new information that will revolutionize our understanding of lunar history”, says Head.

The craft will collect at least 2 kilograms of lunar samples by scooping up soil from the surface, and drilling up rocks and dust.

With the lunar material on board, the ascender will take off from the Moon’s surface, reconnect with the orbiter and returner, and transfer the materials. The orbiter and returner will then make their way back to Earth — a distance of around 380,000 kilometres.

Some 5,000 kilometres from Earth, the lander will separate and begin the final high-speed drop to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, in northern China. Once retrieved from the landing site, the lunar samples will be transported and stored at the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observatories of China in Beijing. Some material will also be kept at Hunan University in Changsha for long-term safekeeping, according to Head.

If Chang’e-5 proves successful, Chang’e-6 will seek to return samples from the Moon’s south pole in 2023.

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